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A serious contemporary movie about a serial killer by flashy and talented genre director William Friedkin may sound like a contradiction in terms, and I certainly wouldn't want to oversell a movie whose distinction largely consists of negative virtues: its refusal to manipulate the viewer, mythologize the subject, or deify the serial killer in the disgusting if effectively Oscar-mongering manner of The Silence of the Lambs. Made several years ago, but held up from release by Dino De Laurentlis's bankruptcy, this film is a somber investigation of the legal and psychiatric issues surrounding the trial of a serial killer. Although the facts of the case are gory enough, Friedkin, adapting a novel of the same title by William P. Wood that's based on an actual case, goes to considerable lengths not to exploit this material for cheap thrills. Refusing to offer any authoritative conclusion about whether or not we should regard this killer (well played by Alex McArthur) as insane, but considering the various legal and ethical ramifications involved, the movie proceeds rather like an issue-oriented chamber drama of the 50s, with potent and naturalistically plausible performances by Michael Biehn, Nicholas Campbell, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, John Harkins, Art La Fleur, Royce O. Applegate, and Grace Zabriskie, among others. (Harlem-Cermak, Bricktown Square, McClurg Court)

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